The arts have lived on the streets amongst the communities of the underprivileged fighting out against control, a response to political suffocation. Often depicted as sub-cultures, these movements of the Punk era in London were a rejection of the modernist Swiss Style of the 1940s and 1950s.
In the late 70s we saw a typographic explosion on the New York train lines in the form of graffiti, which took words and turned them into graphics. Both of these movements focused on taking something old and remixing it into something new, mostly driven by the fact that those less privileged don’t have access to the same resources as the wealthier citizens. Punk kids couldn’t afford to print their magazines professionally, so they used stencils and scalpels to create their fanzines. The hip-hop generation couldn’t get their works into a gallery, so they made the subway their public display.
Art, to me, has always had a subversive origin, whether it’s the cartoons of H. M. Bateman or the artwork of the graffiti writer DONDI. Art has become a channel to push back against the system, becoming the voice of the voiceless.
Another example of expressing ideas against the standard grain is creative code, an art form that has existed since the 1960s. Instead of being functional like code, it creates something that’s expressive. A few years back, Google and the Barbican in London sponsored a contest named and coined a new term, DevArt, which commissioned developers to create a new digital art installation alongside some of the world’s best interactive artists at the Digital Revolution exhibition.
The idea was to promote this ‘new’ movement of creating art in the code space. Although well-intentioned, the initiative had pushback from the grassroots coding community as they felt that the new art name and enforcing Google technologies was nothing more than a marketing stunt. In reaction, they also created an alternative virtual exhibition titled Hack the art world that was geo-fenced and targeted only to those at the Barbican event. It seemed the punk attitude to push back against the corporate machine was alive and well.
One significant positive was the large number of submissions to DevArt. This showed a renewed interest from the general community in using the code medium to create art and show that it too could match the movements of Punk and Hip-Hop in years prior.
Art and code always felt like a juxtaposition to me because I used to feel that code represented academia and the elite. I believed that code represented a new wave of modernism. That it took the soul out of the creative rite of passage, the playful (and sometimes painful) act of discovery, by condensing it down to just a step-by-step process.
Coding in its nature felt like an elitist thing because it requires access to technology, devices and a minimum amount of education to even get started. Much like buying a book on Punk art covers or having a graffiti piece hanging on the wall in a museum, there is something about having the privilege of learning to code on an expensive computer that didn’t add up to me. But then again, is this any different from the artist who goes to art college?
Seeing the coding community and in particular open source community make me wonder if I have been wrong. My previous sneering attitude towards treating code as merely functional and not artistic, as it wasn’t made from paint, was nothing more than an elitist attitude of trying to define what art is because of blinded prejudice.
Art is and must remain accessible to all, whether you’re a kid in the Bronx or the privately educated Michelangelo in Florence. The moment rules are created on who can and can’t be involved; the movement becomes elitist and less able to challenge the status quo. Creative coding does question the foundations of the programming world because it exists to express an idea and not to process a sterile function. In that way, perhaps, creative coding is the most accessible and purest form of art after all.
NotesThis article is for a new youtube series called “Designer Vs Developer”, which you can see here on our Youtube Chrome Channel. You can also listen to a longer version of the conversation by downloading or subscribing to our podcast.
First appeared in Creative Review.